Hillsborough/Tampa homeless group needs volunteers to help with their annual count

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Stories about how Hillsborough County has failed to provide adequate housing for the homeless have been a regular staple in the Tampa Bay Times for months now, with the paper's damaging reports leading the County to hand off their responsibilities to Metropolitan Ministries.

County Administrator Mike Merrill said on Thursday that the county is also working on contracts for emergency housing with the Salvation Army and the Agency for Community Treatment Services.

Meanwhile, Tampa Police are enforcing an ordinance passed last summer that further cracked down on panhandling in certain sectors of the city.

And how many people are homeless in the County in 2014? The numbers have certainly fluctuated in the past few years. Local officials are now recruiting volunteers to help out with the one day count scheduled for Feb. 27. (Pinellas County conducted their one-day survey on Thursday.)

“This year we are truly 'counting to end homelessness,’” said Maria Barcus, CEO of the Tampa Hillsborough Homeless Initiative (THHI) in a press release. “In order to reduce and end homelessness, we must have excellent data by which to measure the community’s success in getting people off the street. This year’s count numbers will be used as the baseline going forward."

The Initiative (formerly known as the Homeless Coalition of Hillsborough County) is putting an even larger emphasis on accuracy when it comes to counting the homeless. In a press release, Lesa Weikel, community relations manager for the group, says that "As HUD (the Department of Housing and Urban Development) continues to refine their priorities and expectations, they are moving in a direction where more funding decisions will be made based on measured success of a community’s efforts in moving people from the streets to permanent housing. Private, non-governmental funding entities and donors are also turning more to metric-driven decisions than just the numbers being served."

Although the stated goal of the U.S. Veterans Administration — to end homelessness among Veterans by the end of 2015 — appeared somewhat quixotic, in fact, officials in Phoenix announced last month that they had achieved that goal, and Salt Lake City announced the same a few weeks ago.

Maria Barcus with the Initiative announced last May that the latest count for the homeless in Hillsborough County was 2,275 — a 47 percent decrease from the 2011 count of 4,681, and a much lower number than the 17,000 plus number that was announced in 2012.

Volunteers who want to help with February's count can sign up on the Tampa/Hillsborough Homeless Initiative's website. Children in high school may volunteer for the count if they are accompanied by a parent or guardian. All count volunteers must also attend a count training prior to the day of the count. For more information, contact THHI at 813-223-6115.

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